Campus & Community

Protecting the Freedom to Read: How to Support Libraries in a Time of Increased Challenges

Simmons University Beatley Library (home of best library science programs)

We really need advocates in the community who are willing to speak up and to say that librarians are fighting the good fight.

“Intellectual Freedom is one of the core values of librarianship,” said Laura Saunders, Professor and Associate Director of School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), at a Library Discussion on "Banned Books and Challenged Ideas" during Alumnae/i, Family and Friends Weekend in October, 2023. Saunders described intellectual freedom as “the right of every individual to both seek and impart information from all points of view without restriction,” based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting that this value isn’t unique to librarianship.

“Although the right to access information isn’t codified anywhere in the constitution, there have been legal arguments made that we can’t really exercise our other rights fully if we can’t access information,” said Saunders. “We can’t make good decisions on who to vote for or health decisions if we don’t have access to good information.”

These points are especially worth noting, given the exponential increase in challenges against materials and events taking place in public libraries. According to Saunders, “the research [from  The American Library Association (ALA), EveryLibrary Institute, and The Hill] suggests that the overwhelming majority of people don’t support the banning and challenging of books. A lot of these challenges are coming from a very small but extremely well-coordinated group of people.” These challenges are also being facilitated by local legislation that, in some cases, could criminalize individuals involved in the provision of access to information, like librarians and teachers.

“A lot of these bans and challenges center on very specific areas and topics, and target specific communities that are typically communities already marginalized,” noted Saunders. “About a third of the challenges that we see focus on LGBTQ-related topics.”

So, where does that leave librarians?

“Intellectual freedom has always been a core tenet of librarianship,” said Saunders. “Another core value is social responsibility.” The American Library Association’s Code of Ethics, updated in 2021, states that members of the LIS [Library and Information Science] profession, “work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; to confront inequity and oppression; to enhance diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, profession, and associations through awareness, advocacy, education, collaboration, services, and allocation of resources and spaces.”

Saunders notes that these dual tenets can cause confusion. “If we’re going to have an absolutist position on [intellectual freedom], that means that we have to provide access to materials from all points of view, regardless of whether we find them offensive or hateful or inappropriate in any way,” noted Saunders, who feels the idea of intellectual freedom has been conflated with supposed library neutrality. “There is nothing neutral about libraries,” stated Saunders. “Supporting intellectual freedom is not a neutral stance — it’s a very specific political stance in support of access to information. We can think of that as ‘viewpoint neutrality,’ but that’s not the same as having a neutral position. It doesn’t mean that we have to necessarily condone hate and violence and oppression, and so we have to kind of figure out how we’re going to balance all of these different things…Supporting intellectual freedom can be a socially responsible position if we are supporting or amplifying voices that haven’t or wouldn’t otherwise be heard.”

Saunders encourages librarians to have clear policies and procedures in place for challenging books. “[Patrons have] the right to challenge material and to voice their opinion about those materials, but we have to lay out the process for doing this very clearly,” said Saunders. She suggests that librarians “be very clear about how those materials are going to be reviewed, how decisions are going to be made, and what happens next.” Librarians and allies need to be aware of their role as advocates, noting that many people aren’t aware of challenges taking place in their communities. “We need to be out there in our communities raising awareness and advocating for intellectual freedom.”

For her part, Saunders supported an anti-book banning resolution in her town of Somerville, Massachusetts. California and Illinois have adopted legislation affirming the libraries' role in providing information access and the state's role in protecting the libraries. The Massachusetts State Legislature is considering similar bills [Bill HD.4443 193rd, Bill S.2447 193rd, Bill H.4005 193rd]. Saunders reached out to her Council person, Matt McLaughlin, who was extremely supportive and encouraged her to draft some language based on the California and Illinois bills to bring to the next meeting. Saunders was invited to speak at the meeting, along with Christina Pascucci-Ciampa '08, '14MS, the owner of All She Wrote Books, an “intersectional, inclusive feminist and queer bookstore” in Somerville.

Given that Somerville is a progressive city, the city councilors signed and passed the proposal, but the remarks by Saunders and Pascucci-Ciampa proved eye-opening. “Some of them seemed surprised to know that there had been challenges to materials and programs at the Somerville library and to hear the ways in which Christina's bookstore had been targeted, such as having the Black Lives Matter sign repeatedly stolen and vandalized,” says Saunders. “Even those of us who are active in the field and connected to the community don't always realize the extent of the issues.”

Saunders notes that the challenges seen in Somerville are nowhere near what other communities face. Given that, and the pressure in some communities for the public library to separate from the American Library Association or lose public funding, it’s important for allies to state their support, regardless of where they live. “Be vocal in support of the library,” said Saunders. “Librarians are receiving a lot of hate right now. I have a PhD student who is doing research on disinformation who put out a call for librarians to participate in his study. He got spammed from people who said librarians shouldn’t be saying anything about disinformation, we don’t have anything to do with that, we shouldn’t be telling people what information is good. Which is kind of funny because that is exactly what we do. What we really need are some advocates in the community who are willing to speak up and to say that librarians are fighting the good fight.”

To that end, Saunders encourages librarians and allies to reach out to the members of Congress in their district to share the resolution and voice their support for something similar at the state level. Saunders shares the wording of the resolution here, welcoming all to use it to reach out to city or state legislators.

In recognition of the alarming trend nation-wide to curtail access to books and other resources, and in the spirit of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read Statement, the Somerville City Council proposes the following resolutions:

  • Residents of Somerville have a right to intellectual freedom, including the freedom to access and share information and ideas without interference
  • City and school libraries have an obligation to facilitate these rights by acquiring, organizing, and making accessible a diverse collection of materials in accordance with their professional ethics and standards, and their collection development policies, without external limitations. In order to fulfill this obligation, libraries must:
    • Provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues, including materials that accurately portray the people of all genders and races, LGBTQ+ Americans, and other ethnic, cultural, religious, and socioeconomic status groups
    • Resist censorship by not excluding materials because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation or because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval and by maintaining clear and current policies and procedures for the development and maintenance of their collections
    • Adequately staffed by professionally trained librarians 
  • To support these rights and obligations, the City Council acknowledges its role to protect libraries against attempts to ban, remove, or otherwise restrict access to books and other materials

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Alisa M. Libby